Saturday, February 25, 2017

Should we feed cars, animals or people?

The global energy market is worth about US$7 trillion per year and the agricultural/biomass sales reaches at least US$7.5 trillion. “The potential profits from merging fossil carbon and living carbon are huge”, says the action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, an NGO that monitors corporate power in the food sector.[i] They, as many others, see a convergence between the energy and food sectors, with biofuel, as the most prominent example. As I discussed earlier there are many interactions in the land, water and energy nexus. Should we feed people, pigs or cars? Will hungry people get less food because you drive an ethanol-powered car? Those are lead­­ing questions. The global food system is indeed one system and it is an illusion to believe that what is done with maize in United States has no implications for the global food markets. But the food system is also very complex and the effects of a change in one place can cascade through the system with opaque feedback loops and interactions.

Before plunging into the debate, let us remember that bio-energy is nothing new, it was there in various forms before fossil fuels, and traditional biomass still globally plays a more important role than biofuels. In the United States it is estimated that, by 1960, the tractor had replaced 23 million draft animals, and the 79 million acres of land used to grow feed for them could be reallocated to other uses.[ii] This equals the average total area used for growing maize up to the year 2007 (after which maize expanded further). Some 140 years ago Sweden had an export boom in oats, not for making muesli or oatmeal porridge but for driving Britain’s transport system. While the British trains were driven by steam engines, other ground transport, including trams, were still horse-powered, and the increase in transportation necessitated more horses and thus more oats, a favorite feed for hard-working horses. From a global perspective, the use of animals for traction is certainly not something of the past. Still today, half of the world’s agricultural land is tilled with the help of animals and many people rely on them to transport themselves, their produce, or sup­plies. Even cell phones and widescreen TVs reach people by mule or camel. Light, in the form of candles and oil made from animals, whales or plants has been with us for several thousand years. Wood, the most important bio-energy there is, still heats the homes of many people and it is the main cooking fuel for most of the world’s poor. And humans have used ethanol alcohol, made of grain, banana, palm or tubers to keep themselves warm and somewhat happy for millennia.

There are several types of biofuels: ethanol from maize, wheat or sugar cane; biodiesel from rape seed, palm oil or copra; methanol from wood, and; biogas from fermenting various waste materials or manure. In the agriculture context ethanol and biodiesel are by far the most important. Global production of biofuel grew from 16 billion liters in 2000, to an estimated 110 billion liters in 2012. More than 80% of the biofuel is ethanol, mainly made from maize and sugar cane. United States and Brazil dominate ethanol production. The United States produced some 50 billion liters and Brazil 28 billion liters, with China producing 2 billion liters. The United States use of maize for biofuel fluctuates with the yield, but it is in the range of thirty percent of the total harvest.[iii] Biodiesel production is smaller and spread in more countries with the United States, Germany, France and Brazil being the main producers.[iv] Between 2004 and 2007, investments in the biofuel sector increased substantially. In 2007-2008 when agricultural commod­ity prices rose sharply this led to a global discussion on the impact of biofuels on food prices. This discussion and the reduced profit margins, because of higher costs for the feedstock crops, led to a sharp drop in investments and biofuel expansion.

Sugar cane ethanol is the most competitive biofuel, but it is still more costly than gasoline and biodiesel costs typically twice as much as petroleum diesel.[v] You need some 5.6 kg of soybeans to produce a liter of biodiesel, 2.7 kg of maize or wheat for one liter of ethanol and 12 kg of sugar cane to produce one liter of ethanol. Approximately 111 million tons of soybeans, rapeseed and sunflower, 157 million tons of maize and wheat and some 370 million tons of sugar cane were used for biofuel production in 2010. The brut calorific energy of this total is around 1.27 quadrillion calories, just under one tenth of the total calorific production from the global agriculture system. Expressed per person, it is 480 kcal per day.[1] The interested reader can find more details in the annex, table 12.

In theory, energy production from food crops only takes away the energy, the calories, from the food system, leaving all the other nutri­ents, such as proteins and minerals, for animals and people.[vi] The residual products of ethanol production from grain and from oil-crushing provide very good feed stuff, so not all the calories are ’lost’ from the food system. The amount that comes back depends on the conversion ratios in livestock production. Distillers grain, the main by-product of maize and wheat ethanol production, is a good animal feed containing 27% protein. For each 10 kg of maize used for ethanol, 3.3 kg of distillers’ grain is produced.[vii] In the United States it is increas­ingly displacing soybeans and maize as an animal feed. As ethanol production increased the distillers’ grain business has evolved its own market, in a similar way that soybean meal went from being waste, to a by-product to a valuable commodity. One study from the FAO expresses the evolution in the questions that livestock producers in the United States have being asking as the ethanol industry and produc­tion of distillers grain have increased. Starting from ‘Can we use distillers’ by-products in animal feeds?’ they moved to ‘How much distillers’ by-products can we use?’ and then ‘Can we use more?’[viii] The United States also exports increasing quantities of distillers’ grain to more than fifty countries around the world, including Canada, China, Mexico, South Korea and Vietnam, for use as swine and poultry feed and also in aquaculture.

Very few biofuel initiatives have emerged on pure commercial grounds as profitability is low. Biofuel production is subject to even more political interventions than food production. For example, the European Union and the United States have (fiercely debated) man­dates to utilize a certain proportion of biofuel. There are a multitude of political drivers for biofuels. One is based on the desire for energy independence (or at least reducing energy dependency). Many coun­tries had ethanol and methanol programs during the Second World War, but the flush of cheap oil after the war led to them all closing down. With the oil price hike 1973, there was a new interest. The Brazilian government mandated the blending of gasoline with ethanol, with a proportion fluctuating between 10% and 22% from 1976 until 1992. Both Brazil and Argentina have policies that require that biodiesel is blended into diesel at specified levels.[ix] A more recent driver is the desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A third, very strong, driver is the need to offload the constantly-increasing produc­tion of farmers, which has led to vast subsidies for producing biofuels. Globally, biofuels received some US$11-12 billion in subsidies in 2006.[x]

Some claim that it is unethical to produce biofuels. Others support it so long as these are made in a sustainable way; some promote certification to safeguard this. For some reason, nobody argues that all fuels be subject to the same criteria or to certification. This would imply applying the same sustainability criteria to petrol (gasoline) which obviously would not make the grade. This is because our global energy and transport systems are not sustainable, due to excessive demand, regardless of where the fuel comes from and from what it has been produced.

A report for Friends of the Earth calculates the realistic bioenergy potential of cropland and grazing land in the year 2050 to be around 70–100 EJ per year.[2] The current global use of fossil fuels stands around 450 EJ/yr. The bioenergy potential from cropland and grazing land is estimated to be in the order of magnitude of 15-22% of current fossil energy use.”[xi] Another report by four Swedish researchers at Global Energy Systems, Uppsala University gives similar results.[xii] Both reports, optimistically, assume that a large share of crop wastes can be converted to biofuels. This can only be done commercially with new technologies and, if more bio­mass is diverted from soils to cars, this could have severe side effects on soil fertility. Most papers I have reviewed have exaggerated expecta­tions of the potential yields of biofuel crops, especially given that the authors expect biofuels to expand into marginal lands. While the quantities involved are huge, biofuels accounted for only 2.3% of global transport fuel demand in 2011; Brazil, the United States and the European Union had considerably higher shares, at 20.1%, 4.4%, and 4.2% respectively (2010 figures). According to Lester Brown, if the entire United States grain harvest was turned into ethanol, it would still only satisfy 18% of current United States gasoline demand.[xiii] This isn’t an argument against biofuels by itself, rather an argument for the need to totally redesign our transport systems. As such, biofuels present a rather limited option for reducing our dependency on oil, even less so if consumption rates in emerging economies are catching up with those in rich countries.

Any reader who has ever been moonshining will be aware that huge amounts of energy are needed in the process of making maize or wheat ethanol. Through the fermentation of the grain mash, sugars are converted to alcohol, but the resulting beer soup has to be distilled and the water and ethanol have to be separated by boiling. In a similar way the extraction of oils for biodiesel is also very energy consuming. This is one reason why biofuel production often has a bad energy ratio. Another reason is that much energy is used in producing the grain in the first place, something I discussed earlier in the chapter on energy. In some cases when added together the energy ratios are less than 1, meaning that the production of biofuel uses more energy than the energy content of the fuel itself, something that can only happen when massive political and economic distortions exist. For grain-based biofuels, the energy ratio, expressed as energy return on energy invested (EROEI), in a number of case studies ranged from 0.7 to 2.8.[xiv] In comparison, EROEI from wind energy, hydroelectricity, coal and oil (not shale) are mostly far above 20.

A low energy ratio is not the only reason for questioning the value of making ethanol from grain. It also leads us to question the extent to which ethanol helps cut greenhouse gas emissions. According to a report from the United States Congress Budget Office, driving cars exclusively on ethanol only reduces greenhouse gas emissions by twenty percent. And, if the ethanol factory is powered by coal, the ethanol will have higher greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. If biofuel production expands into non-agricultural lands, such as forests or savannah, there will be huge emissions of carbon dioxide as a result of the changed land use; the expansion of biofuels into productive tropical ecosystems will lead to net carbon emissions for decades, possibly centuries.[xv] Research from the United States points out that it can take more than 50 years of ethanol production from switchgrass to offset the emissions caused by plowing the land to grow switchgrass: even longer if the land it taken into maize production.[xvi] Of course, this is not unique for biofuel crops, it is the same for any expansion of crop land, but clearly if the motive to grow biofuel is to limit emissions, it is self-defeating if it causes a lot of emissions. The low energy ratio is also reflected in low profitability of produc­ing ethanol and biofuels, which is dependent on subsidies.[xvii] This is not just a case of bad economics or a failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is much worse. Low energy ratios mean that the global calculations of energy needs are grossly misleading. If the energy ratio is as low as 2 this means that, in order to replace 10% of fossil fuel currently used, biofuel correspond­ing to almost 20% of current fossil fuel use will be needed.

Many proponents of biofuels point to the ‘second generation’ of biofuels, biofuels made from cellulosic materi­als. Instead of using the 12 percent sugar that is found in sugar cane, the whole stem could be converted into feedstock for ethanol. The technology for this already exists, but the costs of production are high, making it even less profitable than normal biofuels.

Biofuel is often grown in monocultures, which use a lot of agrochemicals and can be a motivation for ’land-grabbing’. Many proponents of biofuel­ promote the idea that marginal lands and unproductive pastures should be used. But most grazing areas are left for grazing for a good reason; because they are not productive in the first place. For marginal lands this is even more apparent. There is no reason to believe that it will be profitable to grow maize for ethanol on marginal lands when it is not-profitable to grow maize for food. The same applies for wheat, sugar cane and palm oil. In addition, while many so-called marginal lands may not be media darlings like a tropical rain­forest, they do contain very high levels of biodiversity. Very often when land is said to be unused, it is used in some way by pastoralist or marginalized communities.

But there are many nuances in the arguments for and against bio­fuel production. Small-scale biogas plants running on manure and other waste fuel the cooking of many millions of people around the globe. Several hundred million animals provide the power to pull farm implements and transport goods all over the globe – and their ‘fuel’ all comes from agriculture land. It can be very interesting for farms to produce their own energy, individually or collectively. They largely had to do this until the tractor and electricity took over from the horse and wood. Heating needs are the easiest ones to take care of as there are biomass residues that can be burned. Biodiesel or just plain vegetable oil (which can be used to run some types of engines) are the easiest to produce on a small scale. There are small oil mills that can run continu­ously. Depending on the climate they can be fed with canola, sunflower, soybean, oil palm, coconut, jatropha or any other crop with a high oil content. While small scale biogas plants for cooking and heating are widespread and cheap to install and run, the biogas needed to drive a tractor needs to be cleaner and to be compressed, which can only be accomplished with expensive technologies, which means it is unlikely to be profitable at the scale of individual farms.

The same is true for producing ethanol from grain and it is even more complex to make ethanol from straw or other cellulose rich materials.[xviii] A study from Sweden found that using land to produce wheat and potato for ethanol to be used on the farm itself (instead of conventional diesel), lowered food production significantly, by 23% and 18%. This could partly be off-set by changes in the cropping system which could take food production to up to 90% of the reference scenario. The least impact on food production would be achieved by combining a draught horse and on-farm cold-pressed rapeseed oil.[xix] In the scenario the main constraint would not be the need for feed for the horse from the land but higher labor costs. All of these biofuel and bio-energy solutions share a common feature: they are integrated within a production system whose primary purpose is to produce food. This gives a very different logic than scenarios in which biofuels are produced as market commodities. In this way there are many similarities between the debate over biofuel and the debate over meat.

There are many arguments, valid or not, in favor of reducing meat consumption, about greenhouse gas emissions, other environmental issues, animal welfare and health. I already discussed methane emis­sions in the chapter about greenhouse gases. I have also discussed how the industrialization of chicken and other animals has lead to problems with antibiotic resistance and animal welfare. In this book I will not delve on the health aspects of eating meat. I will also only briefly discuss the ethics and acceptability of killing animals in order to eat them. But I want to discuss how (and if) meat production competes for land and resources which could be used for more efficient food production, a discussion that is quite similar to, but even more complex than, the biofuel debate.

Between 1983 and 2005, global meat consumption per person dou­bled. As the global population also increased by 2 billion people, the total meat consumption increased by much more. It is estimated to double again between 2000 and 2050, the biggest increase being in develop­ing countries, assuming that economic growth will continue (an assumption which may prove wrong). Livestock products, such as milk, meat and eggs provide 17% of all energy and 33% of all protein for human nutrition. Meat consumption ranges from 5 kg per person per year in India to 123 kg in the United States.[xx] In some European countries and in the United States total meat consumption has dropped slightly in recent years, e.g. in Germany it dropped from 64 kg in 1991 to 60.5 kg in 2009.[xxi] China today is both the biggest pro­ducer and consumer of meat.[xxii]

Even if reliable statistics for historical meat consumption are scarce (and it is also not always clear if bones and entrails are included), it appears that as early as the 19th century common people ate consider­able quantities of meat in London, Paris and Berlin. Already at the end of the 18th century, the average annual consumption of beef and mutton in Paris was estimated to be 60 kg. Berlin’s consumption of meat in­creased from 45 kg per person in 1845 to 73 kg in 1894. A working class household in 1848 in Stockholm ate 2.5 kg meat per week and much bigger quantities of fish. And at that time Sweden was still a very poor country. In a similar survey a hundred years later, meat consumption in an average Stockholm household was lower, at 1.8 kg, but the family size was smaller as well. [xxiii]

The increase in meat consumption is often explained from a demand per­spective, but can actually be better understood by the industrialization of livestock production and the gains in efficiency, measured as output per kg feedstuff used. This has been coupled with the large-scale monocultural production of soybeans and maize and other feedstuffs. This industrialization is not just restricted to rich industrial countries: Brazil, Thailand and China are going through this process at a rapid pace. The model includes large farm units, bought-in feedstuffs, modern breeds and other technologies and generally some kind of ’vertical integration’ such as contract farming.[xxv]

Of the forty-one most important crops in the world,[3] 24% of the weight is used for animal feed, 67% for food and the rest for industry and fuel.[xxvi] According to the USDA, it takes a less than 2 kg of grain equivalents to produce 1 kilogram of chicken, 5 kg to produce 1 kg of pork, 12 kg to produce 1 kg of beef and just 0.7 kg to produce 1 kg of milk.[xxvii] However, to compare kilograms of (dry) feed with kilograms of (wet) chicken or (very wet) milk is a bit too simplistic. It is more interesting to look at how much protein and calories one gets from the feed and the animals respectively. Researchers from University of Minnesota concluded that 36% of the calories produced globally went to animal feed of which 89% ‘got lost’ in the conversion to meat. In theory, those calories could suffice to feed another 3 billion people.[xxviii]

These, and similar calculations, have led some to conclude that ani­mal products should not be consumed at all. However, things are not so simple. The same researchers found that milk is by far the most efficient way to transform feed to food with a 40% efficiency for calories and 43% for protein. Egg production converts 22% of the feed calories and 35% of the protein to egg calories and protein, chicken meat production converts 12% of the calories and 40% of the protein, and pork 10% of both.[xxix] The main nutritional reason for consuming animal products is for their protein and not for their calories. Increas­ing consumption of animal protein is one of the easiest – admittedly not the only – methods to rapidly improve nutrition and avoid the long-term damage caused by the malnutrition of children, who may never develop to their full bodily or intellectual potential. Yet while the figures quoted above are correct they are also misleading. There are also ’gains’ in the process, especially from ruminants which convert grass to edible calories. The researchers’ calculations are based on the assumption that all livestock products are derived from feeding them on cultivated crops. But this is only the case for industrially-reared livestock and not the case for small-scale or pasture-based livestock systems, or for systems that combine grazing with some supplemen­tary feeding. If we look at the global figures, one-third of the calories in feed come back to us as calories in animal products. Around 48% of the protein in all crops is fed to livestock, but animal products supply us with about 40% of the protein we need, so the net loss of protein is smaller than the loss of calories, and the quality of animal protein is very high. I have not managed to separate out ruminants from other animals, but considering that pigs and poultry are the main consumers of crops fed to livestock, it is likely that milk from ruminants, demon­strates a net gain of protein rather than a loss. This is clearly the case for animals which are largely fed on grass with just supplementary feeding of crops and crop wastes, such as the Indian cow.

Vegetable oil consumption is the most rapidly growing segment in the food sector. And even if some people over-consume fat, on a global scale consumption falls short of people’s needs, so the consumption of vegetable oil is likely to continue to increase. If we avoided consuming animals (and all their products, as is the case with veganism) alto­gether we would need to considerably increase vegetable oil produc­tion, as animals contribute one third of all dietary fats. Here there is a paradox. Almost all vegetable oils give a nutritious residual product (palm oil has the least quantity of by-products) which together with residual products from ethanol (distillers grain), cotton (cotton seed) and sugar beet (molasses and beet fiber) production represents more than one third of all global crop protein. This protein is recycled back into the human food chain by being used as animal feed.[4] The same goes for hulls, husk, bran etc from grain, most of it which would be lost without the animals. Even the iconic tofu have a rest product which is used as pig feed. It is simply not correct to look at what is fed to animals and what we get back and call the difference a loss. Much of it would be lost even if we ate no meat or drunk no milk. Some valu­able animal products are also disregarded in this discussion. Leather, wool and skin are important clothing materials and there are impor­tant medicinal and industrial uses of animal products.

Ultimately, one can count in many different ways, per kg, per calo­rie or how many people could be fed, if feed was consumed directly by humans. But all these ways of counting have their weaknesses. How do deal with grass and hay? Most farmland in the world is grassland, but most of that grassland cannot be used for arable crops unless there is irrigation. Almost all natural grassland is also very low in productiv­ity, so one cannot take average yields from farming and assume that they could be achieved on grassland. There are some permanent grasslands, which are on arable land and could be used for arable crops, such as in the Netherlands and in New Zealand. However, some of these lands are very productive, and growing grass is comparatively more environ­mentally benign than growing grain, so the advantage of converting them to maize fields is not apparent.

There are also socio-economic aspects of livestock production. Live­stock is an important buffer of food and provides livelihoods for people who otherwise would have no income. Today, 600 million people are engaged in small-scale livestock production perhaps 200 million people live from pastoralism. This kind of animal production uses ecological niches that are not suitable for crop production. In addition, 400 million head of livestock are used as draught animals, and their role is mainly to help human beings to grow more food for themselves, even if they mostly also end up on our plates.

Small-scale pig or poultry rearing has traditionally been based on waste products from the field or kitchen, sometimes from food process­ing (such as whey or distiller’s wash). Such feedback loops have been of huge importance for human nutrition. Cultures with limited food resources have used these animals in these roles. Until the 1990s, commercial pig feed in the United Kingdom consisted of 50% food waste.[xxx] This kind of livestock production doesn’t really compete with producing food for human beings.[xxxi] [xxxii] [xxxiii] Industrial production systems have led to the demise of these ecological roles of pigs and poultry. Part of the reason is a fear of disease, which has led to severe restrictions on the use of waste. Even more importantly, feed has become much cheaper and, as production has intensified, waste is not sufficiently standardized and controlled for modern breeding systems. Still, as noted above, these animals are to some extent fed with indus­trial waste products such as distillers’ grain and oil cakes. Clover grass and alpha alpha are often grown in traditional European crop rota­tions: they produce very good feed for ruminants(in the form of hay or silage) and also stimulate higher yields of grains and other foods on the land in subsequent years. They sequester nitrogen which can be used by the grain crop, and the manure from the animals can be used for demand­ing crops at the right time.

Finally, while the aggregate maths might suggest it, there is no evi­dence that livestock production currently diverts food from those who currently go hungry[xxxiv] even if there are theoretical possibilities for this to happen. Once again, we need to look at the whole system and not discuss one component in isolation.

Industrial livestock production is, however, the opposite of tradi­tional systems; it absorbs a lot of capital and natural resources, is largely grain-based and demands high quantities of water. It’s energy use is also high; it takes thirty-three times more energy to produce a calorie of industrial beef than one calorie of potatoes. Large-scale ranching might perform better in many of these respects, but raises other issues, for example, posing a threat to other valuable ecosystems, such as the forests that are cleared for grazing. A large share of the increase in meat production in Brazil is from the rainforest zone.[xxxv] [xxxvi] From this brief overview, it should be clear that one cannot make general statements about the effects of eating meat or keeping livestock. This notwithstanding, the total increased pressure on natural resources caused by the combination of the growth of the human population and the growth of meat consumption is worrying. And it is unlikely that freely-grazing ruminants and waste-eating chicken and pigs could meet an ever increasing global demand for meat, even though I have seen no serious effort to actually calculate this. From the perspective of food availability and our environmental foot print, there is nothing wrong in drinking milk or eating meat in reasonable quantities. But we have to ask how they are produced. If chemical fertilizers and pesti­cides were abandoned, monocropping ceased and livestock production was humane, the price for meat would be much higher than it is now and most people’s consumption would be much lower. Chicken would once again be a Sunday dish.

Plants and animals are complementary. They use and need each other. There are no natural ecosystems without animals, and there has never been a sustainable intensive agriculture system without some livestock production. We saw, in the case of the first agriculture re­volu­tion in Europe, that the integration of livestock within farm pro­duction, including the growing of fodder on arable land, increased pro­duction, of both feed and food, tremendously, It also increased people’s consumption of livestock products. One should also not forget that much of what is said to be ‘lost’ by raising animals is recycled to the land as manure and contributes to improving the land and supplying it with nutrients[5] and humus. The benefits of integrat­ing animals is somewhat reduced when chemical fertilizers are used in the fields, but as I have demonstrated elsewhere, chemical fertilizers have other serious drawbacks.

A vegan system of farming, while needing less total land area for production would need more plowed, arable land than a mixed farming system where ruminants are largely grass-fed and pigs and chicken are largely fed with waste products from the food industry. It is too early to draw far-reaching, negative or positive, conclusions on the viability of a full vegan production system. Veganism is largely based upon ethical misgivings about humans having the right to keep animals in captivity for their own benefit. It raises issues about whether animals have ‘rights’ and whether we have special obligations to those animals that have now adjusted themselves to live with us (few of them would survive in the wild). My view is that we are bound to these symbionts by ten thousand years of farming. Modern market based farming systems treat these symbionts awfully and this cannot be justified. I believe there are systems where we don’t see them purely instrumentally (valuing them solely for meat, milk or skins) but as living creatures, worthy of respect and a life reasonably adjusted to their innate needs and natural behavior.

Biomass is not solely used for fuel or feed. Industrial biotechnol­ogies use agricul­tural rather than petroleum-based feedstock to produce chemicals and plastics – the more so if they can claim that they are ’sustainable’ or ’green.[6] The value of biochemicals (excluding pharma­ceuticals) could increase from 1.8% of all chemical production in 2005 to between 12% and 20% by 2015 according to the OECD. Not even one percent of plastics produced are currently from biological materials, although in the not-too-distant future most of them could be made from such raw materials.[xxxvii] For example, by the end of 2013, Coca-Cola had used 18 billion ‘Plantbottles’, partly made from sugar cane from Brazil and India.[xxxviii] In Japan, the ‘Biomass Nippon Strategy’, estab­lished in 2002, requires that 20% of all plastics consumed in the country are renewably sourced by 2020. This prompted Toyota, NEC and others to accelerate their R&D activities into biobased plastics and to raise the biobased content of their products.[xxxix] Using the sophisti­cated molecules made by photosynthesis for this purpose seems to be more interesting than burning them as bio-fuels. Nevertheless, a bio-refinery industry would further increase pressures on land.

The discussion about changing consumption patterns is the part of the food puzzle that attracts most attention. I think the attention it receives it is a result of several factors. One is the neo-liberal dogma that the market is the main play ground for all sorts of human interactions. This, combined with many people’s despair that politics, policies and politicians change very little has given rise to the ethical consumer movement, premised on the idea that our purchasing decisions deter­mine what kind of society we live in. These discussions are also used as a proxy by people having a wide range of ideas about nutrition and/or ethics. I find that this discourse is disconnected from the realities of farming, and the factors that determine farmers’ choices.

In a global food system, which land is plowed for which use is often difficult to ascertain. The chain reactions in the food system are immense. What would the implications be if there were no palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia? Would there be less vegetable oil consumed or would soybean production expand even further into the Amazon? Considering that oil palm gives almost ten times more oil per hectare than soybean oil, would we save 1 hectare of rainforest on Borneo by cutting down 10 hectares in the Amazon? Or, would there be an expansion of rape seed oil production with a massive increase in the use of pesticides, causing bee-death, and of chemical fertilizers. If people stopped eating beef and lamb, what would happen to the enormously biodiverse mountain pastures kept open by their snouts? If more maize were diverted to biofuel production in the United States, and the protein-rich by-product is used for animal feed, would it replace soybean production and thereby reduce deforestation?

Cotton is grown on 34 million hectares, rubber, coffee and cocoa on another 10 million hectares each, tobacco and tea on more than 4 million and 3 million hectares respectively. Wine, beer and liquors are all produced from agricultural crops which occupy more than 20 million hectares. The United States has 9.2 million horses, almost all of them for hobby.[xl] Golf courses take up much (potential or former) agriculture land, one estimate is that they use 5.3 million hectares globally: much, but not all of that, is on former agriculture land.[xli] If there were a generalized, real, food shortage this land could, of course, be turned back to food production – particularly the golf courses which have abundant irrigation – though whether the returns on crops would match those of membership subscriptions remains to be seen.

At the time of writing, there is a fierce debate within the European Union about the limits to biofuels made from food crops. The Euro­pean Union currently plans that 10% of transport fuel should be renewable (read biofuel) by 2020. But there is a lobby against convert­ing food crops into biofuels. While this position might reflect genuine concern for the hungry of the world, the ’biomass market’ has no such qualms. Food, feed and energy compete with each other for land, water, investment and research funding regardless of the European Union’s goals. If the European Union really cared about the poor and the hungry in developing countries, it might first turn its eye to look at the effects of its own agriculture and trade policies.

Many of the criticisms of biofuels and animal feed production seem to be based on a limited understanding of how global food and agricul­ture markets work in practice. The food sector has historically been a buyer’s market. Increased food prices and emerging alternative uses for farmland are a boon for farmers, and generally positive for rural areas, and those who live there. Most hungry people in the world live in rural areas and even those who are net buyers of food, such as agriculture workers and small farmers, will mostly benefit from increased incomes in the area as this means more employment, more demand for services and labor and better infrastructure. If biofuel production in the United States, the European Union and Brazil were to cease, or people were to stop eating meat, there would be a massive fall in global agricultural prices. For a short while, poor people in the slums would get cheaper food. But within a few years, millions of farmers, in both developed and developing countries, would have been forced off the land and, in developing countries, most would become dirt poor. They and the people working for them would be worse off than today, and hungrier. Welcome to the global market economy. Welcome to the treadmill.

This is an extract from Global Eating Disorder

[1]       Calculations based on EIA international biofuel statistics.
[2]       EJ stands for Exa Joule; 1 EJ=1018 J.
[3] In the United States 57% of these crops are used for feed, compared to just 4% of the major crops in India
[4] I can not exclude the possibility that it will one day be possible to make a protein-rich food from soybean or rapeseed cake, which would break this link between vegetable oils and animal-rearing.
[5] Animal manure doesn’t provide any new nutrients to the system, as all the nutrients in the manure comes from the soil in the first place, but there is no doubt that animal manure has very good soil building properties and also has the benefit of being possible to use where and when it is most needed.
[6] I believe there are reasons to be quite skeptical about the real environmental benefits of many of these.

[i]            ETC 2011 Who will control the Green Economy? ETC Communiqué no. 107 ETC.
[ii]           USDA Economic Research Service 2013 Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming Economic Resaerch Report 152 United States Department of Agriculture.
[iii]           National Corn Growers Association 2013 The World of Corn 2013 National Corn Growers Association.
[iv]          US-EIA 2014 ‘International Energy Statistics/Biofuels Production’
[v]           US-EIA 2013 Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2013 U.S. Energy Information Administration.
[vi]          Makar, H. P. S. (editor) 2012 Biofuel Co-Products As Livestock Feed: Opportunities and challenges. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
[vii]          Pimentel, D. and T. W. Patzek 2005 ‘Ethanol production using corn, switchgrass, and wood; biodiesel production using soybean and sunflower’ Natural Resources Research, 14 (1).
[viii]         Makar, H. P.S. (editor) 2012 Biofuel Co-Products As Livestock Feed: Opportunities and challenges. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
[ix]           Ibid.
[x]           FAO 2008 ‘The World Only Needs 30 Billion Dollars a Year to Eradicate the Scourge of Hunger’ Press release 3 June 2008
[xi]           Erb, K-H. et al. 2009 Eating the Planet: Feeding and fuelling the world sustainably, fairly and humanely–a scoping study Institute of Social Ecology and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
[xii]          Johansson, K. 2010 ‘Agriculture as provider of both food and fuel’ Ambio 39(2): 91–99.
[xiii]         Brown, L. 2013 Full Planet, Empty Plates: The new geopolitics of food scarcity Earth Policy Institute.
[xiv]         Rundgren, G. 2013 Garden Earth - from hunter and gatherers to global capitalism and thereafter Regeneration.
[xv]          Gibbs, H. K. et al. 2008 ‘Carbon payback times for crop-based biofuel expansion in the tropics: The effects of changing yield and technology’ Environmental Research. Letters. 3 034001.
[xvi]         United States Congressional Budget Office 2009 The Impact of Ethanol Use on Food Prices and Greenhouse-Gas Emissions United States Congress.
[xvii]        Ibid.
[xviii]        Sundberg, C. M. et al. ‘Organic farming without fossil fuels – life cycle assessment of two Swedish cases’ in Organic Farming Systems as a Driver for Change, Bredsten, Denmark, 21-23 August 2013 Nordic Association of Agricultural Scientist.
[xix]         Johansson, S. and K. Belfrage. ‘Self-sufficiency of fuels for tractive power in small-scale organic agriculture’ in Organic Farming Systems as a Driver for Change Bredsten, Denmark, 21-23 August 2013 Nordic Association of Agricultural Scientist.
[xx]          FAO 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
[xxi]         Mathias, E. 2012 Livestock out of Balance, from Asset to Liability in the Course of the Livestock Revolution League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development.          
[xxii]         FAO 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
[xxiii]        Pettersson, R. (editor) 2008 Bekvämlighetsrevolutionen. Stockholmia Förlag.
[xxv]        Mathias, E. 2012 Livestock out of Balance, from Asset to Liability in the Course of the Livestock Revolution League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development.
[xxvi]        Cassidy, E. S. et al. 2013 ‘Redefining agriculture yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare’ Environmental Research Letters 8 (2013) 030415.
[xxvii]       USDA 2012 Agricultural Statistics 2012 United States Department of Agriculture.
[xxviii]      Cassidy, E. S. et al. 2013 ‘Redefining agriculture yields: from tonnes tp people nourished per hectare’ Environmental Research Letters 8 (2013) 030415.
[xxix]        Ibid.
[xxx]         Fairlie, S. 2008 ‘Can Britain feed itself?’ The Land 4 Winter 2008-8.
[xxxi]        Worldwatch Institute 2006 State of the World 2006. Special focus: China and India. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
[xxxii]       FAO 2007 The State of Food and Agriculture Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
[xxxiii]       Erb, K-H. et al. 2009. Eating the Planet: Feeding and fuelling the world sustainably, fairly and humanely–a scoping study Institute of Social Ecology and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
[xxxiv]      FAO 2006 Livestock’s Long Shadow Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
[xxxv]       Worldwatch Institute 2006 State of the World 2006. Special focus: China and India. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
[xxxvi]      FAO 2007 The State of Food and Agriculture Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
[xxxvii]      OECD 2011 Industrial Biotechnology and Climate Change Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
[xxxviii]     Coca-Cola Company 2013 ‘Plantbottle’
[xxxix]       OECD 2011 Industrial Biotechnology and Climate Change Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
[xl]           American Horse Council 2014 ‘National Economic Impact of the U.S. Horse Industry’
[xli]          Macklean 2013 Mat eller motor Macklean Insikter

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